Some Milwaukee history buffs might recognize the “St. Regis House,” the castle-like abode at 3266 N. Lake Drive, just south of Hartford Avenue, set deep within an acre-and-a-half estate that includes lush gardens and an arresting view of Lake Michigan.
But what is less obvious about the Chateauesque style house is how closely its hundred-year history is entwined with several religious orders in the Milwaukee area. Designed in 1912 by famed architect Alexander Eschweiler, the home was intended to be a private residence. However, for much of the 20th century it housed three orders of nuns, two Catholic and one Episcopalian.
The public will get a glimpse inside the home this month thanks to Morning Star Productions’ upcoming dramatic reenactment titled “A St. Regis Wedding.” The production is being billed as a “Downton Abbey experience right here in Milwaukee” and depicts a genteel World War I-era family as they prepare for their daughter’s wedding … and wait anxiously for the groom to return home from the war in time for the nuptials.
Fundraiser for Christian theater
The play will be a fundraiser for Morning Star’s mission of providing Christian theater in the Milwaukee area, and the St. Regis House is owned by longtime Morning Star supporter, playwright and actress Lisa Buethe and her husband. The couple bought the historic 7,350-square-foot, 12-room house in 2011 and are not shy about welcoming visitors. The family, members of Eastbrook Church, care for foster children and frequently open the house to friends to host weddings and other events.
Visitors will be able to experience the castle-like house at 3266 N. Lake Drive in a variety of ways. House tours (without the dramatic re-enactment) will be held Tuesdays through Thursdays, Aug. 18 through the 27th. For $10, visitors can tour the kitchen, dining room, servants’ quarters, “bride’s bedroom,” grand salon and the “wedding chapel.”
“We feel like we’re blessed to have gotten the house; we have a lot of people live here with us, and so we have an extended family. We just feel that the things that we’re given, that we’re blessed with, we should use – and Morning Star has a wonderful faith statement,” said Buethe.
“We feel like we’re stewards (of the house). We won’t be here forever … we’ll move on. People who were here before loved the house and were good to it – and I think each time it’s been well-loved.”
A lakeside sanctuary
According to a historic designation study report completed in 2001 on several Lake Drive estates, the house at 3266 N. Lake Drive was built in 1912 for businessman Orrin W. Robertson, president of the Western Lime and Cement Company. It was designed by Alexander Eschweiler in the Chateauesque style at the request of Robertson’s wife Harriet, who had been captivated by the beauty of the Chateau Azay-le-Rideau on a trip to the Loire Valley in France.
The Robertsons lived at the home from 1921 to 1928. Tanning executive David B. Eisendrath and his wife were the estate’s third residents and lived there until 1963, when it was sold to the Sisters of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle as a residence for the order’s provincial mother and her staff. It was known as “the Eisendrath house” when the Cenacle sisters acquired it, but they quickly gave it a new name: the St. Regis House.
“We called it that because St. (John Francis) Regis is the secondary patron of our society,” recalled Sr. Rosemary Duncan of the Cenacle Sisters who now lives in Chicago. “We were founded at his tomb in France, in Lalouvesc.”
The order already owned another Eschweiler-designed home directly to the north of the St. Regis House, at 3288 N. Lake Drive for lumber baron Henry M. Thompson (it now serves as the Wisconsin Institute for Torah Study). Most of the Cenacle sisters, Sr. Rosemary included, lived at that house during the 1950s and 1960s and used it to conduct retreats.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “We had weekend retreats and longer retreats; we had what we called guilds that were meetings of women once a month, and then we had a meeting called the Children of Mary, so we had children there once a month during the school year.
It was a wonderful thing – we still have many people who remember those days who were members of the Children of Mary. It was a spiritual thing for the kids, a couple of hours of retreats. We had a sister, her name was Agnes Sauer (director of the retreat house); she was like a Pied Piper (with the children).”
One of the retreat participants at the time was the then-teenaged Mary Elizabeth Cullen from Columbus in the Madison Diocese.
“At that time you got off (the bus) at UWM, and then we would drag our big suitcases on the sidewalks up to the Cenacle retreat house,” she recalled.
Cullen attended weekend Cenacle retreats at the Thompson house next door to the St. Regis House every year during high school with several of her friends, praying and reflecting in silence, being counseled by the sisters and attending Mass with them.
The prayerful lakeside community life must have appealed to Cullen, for she joined the St. Vincent de Paul Daughters of Charity in 1962 after graduating from St. Mary’s College of Nursing.
Former retreat house becomes her home
In a poetic twist, she found herself living at the St. Regis House in 1972. The Daughters of Charity had purchased the home from the Community of St. Mary’s, an Episcopal order who owned it briefly after the Cenacle sisters left in 1971, according to the historic designation study report.
Sr. Mary Elizabeth recalled being enchanted by life in the dreamy lakeside mansion, where she lived with 11 other Daughters of Charity who, along with her, worked at St. Mary’s Hospital on North Avenue and Lake Drive (now Columbia St. Mary’s Milwaukee).
“It was an experience, because after that I always lived in ordinary houses,” she said.
She slept in a private bedroom on the third floor, in what was formerly the Eisendraths’ servants’ quarters, overlooking the estate next door where she used to enjoy so many silent retreats as a young woman.
The sisters repurposed the mansion’s opulent parlor into a community room overlooking the back lawn, which stretched toward the lake, and likewise transformed the Eisendraths’ conservatory/ballroom into a chapel.
“We had an altar and a tabernacle and we had chairs that we used for when we said prayers together, and had kneelers. It was a beautiful setting. It had a (vaulted) roof – it was beautiful because it had been a ballroom, so there was a lot of wood paneling in it, I think,” she said.
Former chapel still houses sacred
Appropriately, the Daughters of Charity’s “chapel” is now the home to Lisa Buethe’s impressive collection of decorative crosses. The Buethes utilize the room as a family living space, and have painted the walls a warm autumnal red, a color which provides a dramatic juxtaposition with the light from the three window-lined walls and the white vaulted ceiling.
The Buethes are the third family to use the home as a private residence after the Daughters of Charity sold the property in 1981.
Dennis and Mary Bersch, members of Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, purchased the home from the sisters in 1981 and renovated the inside, but retained the chapel. The sisters took the pews when they left, according to Mary Bersch, but the altar and painting of the Holy Ghost remained, she said.
Interestingly, the wedding reenactment that will take place at the mansion this month will not be the first reenactment of a wedding at the home, according to Mary, describing a celebration hosted by the Bersches several years ago.
Their son, Fred, married Karen, now school secretary at Lumen Christi, Mequon, in 1982 in Arizona, but the family celebrated their wedding at the mansion with a Mass celebrated by Fr. Jerry Rinzel, followed by a reception at the lakefront home.
The Bersches sold the home in 1987.
The Buethes have made several cosmetic modifications to the rooms that more accurately reflect the time period in which it was designed, and the previous owners restored the butler’s pantry on the north side of the house, which one of the religious orders did away with.
“It’s wonderful living here,” said Buethe. “Even though it’s very large, it’s a very homey house, I think.” She said the house’s former occupants are often on the family’s mind. “We talk about the nuns all the time!”
Family makes convent a home: Restoration efforts restore home to former glory
The engagement ring was tucked safely in his pocket, but Dennis Bersch worried the girl who captured his heart would turn him down and join the convent.
Dennis and his sweetheart, Mary, Sheboygan natives, went to a mission at Holy Name Parish prior to a date at the movie theater.
During the mission presentation, the priest gave a strong pitch for vocations and Dennis recalled that Mary seemed intrigued with the idea of becoming a nun – too intrigued, he feared.
Fortunately, for him, Mary said, “yes” when he proposed in the balcony of the movie theater later that day.
During their marriage, however, convent life was a running joke, with Mary occasionally suggesting she should have joined the convent when family life became a bit stressed.
Many years and four sons later, however, Mary, more-or-less, got her wish in 1981, when the couple purchased the convent, located at 3266 N. Lake Drive, from the Sisters of Our Lady of the Retreat in the Cenacle.
They had been looking for a large home near downtown Milwaukee for their family and their Realtor, a friend who knew their courtship story, contacted them, saying, “Here’s your chance to put your wife in a convent,” Dennis, a member of Lumen Christi Parish, Mequon, told the Catholic Herald in a telephone interview.
The convent needed a massive amount of work to make it into a home – none of the bedrooms had doors, only privacy curtains; the stone on the interior walls was covered with blue burlap held on with dried glue, it was not air-conditioned, and aluminum storm windows covered gorgeous stained glass windows. Yet, the Bersches immediately made an offer to purchase.
They spent about two years restoring the home to its former glory, doing some of the work themselves.
“We took razor blades, cut the bottoms of those bags and vacuumed out the old, dusty glue,” recalled Dennis, explaining how they also went to France to look at the Chateau Azay-le-Rideau in the French Loire Valley to help them in their restoration efforts. They consulted Madame (Liane) Kuony, a Belgian native and founder of the Postilion School of Culinary Art in Fond du Lac, for help in redesigning the kitchen.
Dennis said the couple paid $120,000 for the convent, but estimated they spent about a quarter of a million dollars renovating it.
They added air conditioning, repaired the five fireplaces, added storm windows, imported tiles from France and in time, it became a showcase home.
Dennis recalled traditions his family enjoyed at the mansion, including the hanging of a large wreath each Christmas for Children’s Hospital and a palm weaving workshop they hosted every Palm Sunday that drew about 100 people, including the nuns that formerly lived there.
“The nuns loved the fact that we did that,” he recalled.
Even though Dennis, a CPA and partner with Touche Ross, later known as Deloitte & Touche, worked for a company based in New York, he lived in Milwaukee, in part because of the Lake Drive home.
“I traveled around the world consulting, but never moved, because we lived in a wonderful house that we couldn’t duplicate in New York,” he said, adding it was a great place to live and a place where they entertained clients from every continent.
The Bersches sold the home in 1987 after receiving what Dennis described as an offer they couldn’t refuse.
Yet, their fond memories of their former home remain.
“It was a beautiful place and I think it should be appreciated properly,” he said, adding, “the real stories that took place there are better than some of the legends.”